Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald: Innocence, and the Future of Habeas Corpus
[Editor's Note: Harvey Silverglate represented Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald in appellate court. Dr. MacDonald has been in prison since 1979, less a 1.5 year period he was released from August 1980 until March 1982, when he won an appeal for not receiving a speedy trail, but was sent back to prison again when the Supreme Court overturned his release. All told, he's spent about 33.5 years behind bars, falsely accused and railroaded into prison for a crime he did not commit. The tabloid TV press labeled him "The Green Beret Murderer." Dr. MacDonald is now 71 years old, having spent the most productive and vigorous years in the life of a highly skilled and admired emergency room physician, languishing in a prison cell instead of enjoying the life that his innocence entitled him to. The late, retired FBI Bureau Chief, Ted L. Gunderson, began each and every one of his talks from 1980 until just a few months before he died on July 31, 2011, with an overview of the MacDonald case; explaining to his audience how Dr. MacDonald was framed and how he would continue to "be on the case" until Jeffrey MacDonald was set free. It was Ted Gunderson who got Helena Stoeckley, part of the satanic drug coven who murdered MacDonald's wife and children on February 17, 1970, to record a video tape confession of what happened that night. The confession was recorded by 60 Minutes, but they never aired it. You will understand why if you read the book that tells the story of MacDonald's railroading accurately, Fatal Justice (1995) written by Jerry Potter and Fred Bost. A newer book by Errol Morris, released in 2012 called A Wilderness of Error includes recent interviews with many of the people involved in the MacDonald case with many new pieces of information not covered in the seminal book by Potter and Bost. Dr. MacDonald's web site is http://themacdonaldcase.org. Email can be directed to email@example.com ...Ken Adachi]
Jeffrey MacDonald, Innocence, and the Future of Habeas Corpus
Inherent in any human endeavor is the possibility of error. In few arenas is this axiom more consequential—or more steadfastly ignored—than in the criminal justice system.
The week of September 17th, the Wilmington, NC, federal district court held a long-awaited evidentiary hearing in the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. This murder case, which occasionally has dominated (and of late has returned to) the headlines, offers a chilling reminder of the importance of accuracy over the finality of criminal verdicts when weighing innocence claims of the convicted. In seeking to balance the supposed necessity of finality against the obvious need to protect the innocent from all-too-frequent errors, the case probes the viability and scope of the constitutionally-protected writ of habeas corpus, the procedural device for reviewing otherwise final judgments based on newly-discovered evidence.
This ancient legal right is deemed by scholars to be the single most important right inherited from the ancient Anglo-Saxon legal system and incorporated into the Constitution. Yet controversy has long swirled around habeas corpus on the question of whether it is aimed at assuring only that certain procedures be followed, or whether a case can be revisited, years or even decades later, if evidence arises that a convict turns out to be demonstrably innocent.
The MacDonald case puts front-and-center the pivotal question of whether the writ of habeas corpus should be available to the convicted, regardless of how many times a defendant has unsuccessfully attacked his conviction in the past. But this gets us ahead of the remarkable story of this case.
In 1970, the two young daughters and pregnant wife of Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, an army physician stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were murdered. Such brutal slayings pock-marked an era of unparalleled tumult—a half year after the Manson Family murders, and two months after Altamont, at which four concert-goers died, the MacDonald murders underscored innocence lost.
It is perhaps for this reason that fascination surrounded the case. It didn’t hurt that the prime suspect—Jeffrey MacDonald himself—was a Princeton-educated Green Beret. Though badly injured, he survived. Could he have perpetrated the killings, and orchestrated an elaborate cover-up in which he even stabbed himself within less than an inch of his heart?
MacDonald told investigators that four drugged-out intruders, three men and one woman, invaded his home, beat him unconscious, and murdered his family. To this day, he has stuck unwaveringly to this account.
Early on, MacDonald’s version of events was lent credence when an Army judicial officer found no credible evidence to bring formal charges against him. Though tasked only with determining whether cause existed to bring the case to a formal court martial, the officer went one step further: he declared the allegations “not true” and recommended that civilian authorities investigate Helena Stoeckley, a possible suspect who fit MacDonald’s description of the female intruder. Importantly, immediately after MacDonald, seriously injured and woozy, phoned for emergency assistance, a military policeman speeding to the scene spotted a woman with long blond hair and a distinctive floppy hat standing in the rain on a street corner near the MacDonald home. The MP’s description of this woman very much lined up with MacDonald’s description of the female intruder, even though neither MacDonald nor the MP had heard the other’s description of her.
After MacDonald left the Army, U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors picked up the case, ignoring the Army investigator’s advice and instead focusing on MacDonald as their prime suspect. Nearly five years after his family was killed, MacDonald was indicted for murder. After a lengthy trial, he was convicted in July 1979 and sentenced to consecutive life sentences. Over the years the case became notorious for the mountain of evidence that the jurors did not hear.
It wasn’t long thereafter that a best-selling book by author Joe McGinniss, Fatal Vision, and a made-for-TV movie by the same name cemented MacDonald’s guilt in the public and judicial eye. His repeated attempts to have courts look anew at his conviction were, until recently, for naught.
This has been due to the doctrine of “finality” of criminal judgments. In the early 1990s, efforts to end post-verdict attacks on findings of guilt blossomed in all three branches of the federal government. In 1991, just days before my colleagues and I were to file a brief seeking a new trial for MacDonald, the Supreme Court, in McCleskey v. Zant, raised the bar for habeas corpus petitions. Despite accumulating evidence implicating Stoeckley and exonerating MacDonald, our petition, a federal district court ruled in 1991, did not overcome the heavy burden that suddenly favored finality.
Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in 1996, which further raised the bar for repetitive habeas claims, and so the federal courts again rebuffed MacDonald’s plea for review in 1997. The Court of Appeals in Richmond warned MacDonald’s lawyers (including me) to exercise caution before undertaking to file another petition.
MacDonald and his lawyers nonetheless persisted. Yet even as new evidence questioning his guilt mounted, lower courts were allowed to reject his requests for a new trial by relying on technicalities and viewing evidence in a piecemeal fashion. Finally, on April 19, 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered the lower court to sweep aside the technical barriers and, at long last, execute a “fresh analysis” of the “evidence as a whole”— hence the evidentiary hearing that took place last month in Wilmington. There has been much speculation over what prompted the Fourth Circuit court to take the dramatic step of ordering the lower court to review MacDonald’s conviction. My own view is that the enormous accretion of evidence of innocence finally overcame the notoriously conservative court’s reluctance to disturb a conviction that for so long has been deemed “final.”
The combination of two factors in the MacDonald case, not likely replicated in others, accounts for this remarkable turn-around. First, court-ordered DNA tests of crime-scene evidence revealed specimens found on the wife and one daughter that matched no one in the MacDonald family, thus pointing to unknown outside assailants. Second, a retired deputy United States Marshal, diagnosed with terminal cancer, swore as he was dying that he witnessed one of the prosecutors threatening Helena Stoeckley at the time of the trial. She appeared prepared to testify that she was with three friends at the scene of the crime; after this prosecutorial intervention, she suddenly backed down and had amnesia.
Three decades and countless hearings after the guilty verdict, MacDonald finally won the right to present the full panoply of evidence supporting his innocence at the long-awaited hearing the week of September 17th. If, as some have predicted, the federal district court judge in Wilmington again rules against MacDonald, the case will be back in the hands of the same Court of Appeals that finally saw the light and ordered the hearings after decades of judicial dawdling.
The enormity of the injustice done to Jeffrey MacDonald, as well as the case’s catastrophic effects on the criminal justice system as a whole, can be ascertained from a perusal of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris’ recently released book, A Wilderness of Error: the Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. Morris succeeded decades ago in helping free wrongly convicted Randall Dale Adams from death row with his 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line.” Now with A Wilderness of Error, Morris has aggregated a gigantic mass of evidence powerfully refuting the myths and lies that have kept Jeffrey MacDonald behind bars for 33 years. Morris’ book almost certainly will get noticed by the appellate court judges who ordered last month’s evidentiary hearing on the basis of the evidence accumulated before the book’s publication. A massive piece of investigative journalism that demonstrates a convict’s innocence, and the unfairness of the trial that arrived at the wrong conclusion, never escapes notice by the judges in whose hands is placed the power to redeem both the system and the wrongly-convicted defendant’s life.
This case should force a re-examination of current habeas corpus law and its Byzantine procedural obstacles. Its fixing requires both legislative and judicial rethinking of the importance of juries and judges having access to the fullest array of available evidence. Currently, demonstration of “mere innocence” is not by itself deemed an adequate basis for release of a prisoner. Habeas corpus relief depends upon a combination of newly-discovered evidence plus a demonstration of innocence. And litigation over the meaning of “newly discovered” can itself take years and many trips up to appellate courts.
This notion should be condemned to the scrap heap of American judicial history. As University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett has written in his recent book, Convicting the Innocent, currently “the one claim that no convict can easily bring is a claim that he is innocent and should be freed for that reason alone.”
Garret’s work examines the common themes among the first 250 inmates that the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, has helped free to date, a development that owes its success in no small part to the advancement in DNA science. (The Innocence Project filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting MacDonald.) Indeed, we’re living in an age of science and information, one that allows for the re-examination of verdicts often buried in history. But first the legal barriers to the presentation of facts—those most stubborn of things—must be removed. And when those facts add up to a picture of actual innocence, immediate release, rather than endless and obstructive procedural games, should be the result.
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